Pianosa is the setting for most of Catch-22. Heller places the fictitious 256th Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Forces, to which Captain Yossarian belongs, at a base on Pianosa under the command of the 27th Air Force.
Located 8 miles south of Elba, Pianosa is a tiny island in the Tuscan Archipelago. At only 3.9 square miles, it is far too small to have contained a major air base and a village as described in Heller’s novel. Its highest point is just 72 feet above sea level.
There are no permanent residents on the island today, but between 1858 and 1998 it held a maximum security prison that housed especially dangerous Mafia criminals.
There is another, even smaller island called Pianosa off the Adriatic (east) coast of Italy, but the island on the west side of Italy is the one Heller had in mind.
In legend, it was founded by Romulus, one of twin brothers suckled by a wolf, who killed his brother Remus before founding the city in 753 BCE. In reality, archaeological remains suggest it grew out of pastoral settlements on the Palatine Hill, possibly in the middle of the 8th century BCE, but this is not certain.
Known as the capital of the Roman Republic from 509 BCE, the country became the Roman Empire in 27 BCE under the rule of Augustus, seventeen years after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The empire grew to reach across much of Europe and the Middle East, and its capital was the wealthiest, largest, and most important city in the world for a thousand years. It also gathered spiritual significance when the Bishop of Rome became the Pope in the early 4th century AD during the reign of emperor Constantine I.
Under the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, Rome grew again in power and population after 1922, surpassing 1 million inhabitants. Declared an open city in World War II, meaning its holders would not defend it against attack, it did not undergo the heavy bombing experienced by other European capitals, but the Allies did bomb Rome on June 19, 1943, killing 3,000 and wounding 11,000. It was liberated from the Germans on June 4, 1944.
For much of Catch-22, Rome is the headquarters for General P.P. Peckem, the head of Special Services who is the political rival of General Dreedle, Yossarian’s ultimate commander in the 27th Air Force. The men always go to the brothels of Rome for their R-and-R, where Nately falls in love with a whore, and Yossarian falls in love with pretty much everyone, from Luciana to the maid in the lime-green panties.
One of the nicknames for Rome is “The Eternal City.” Heller makes this the title of the climactic Chapter 39, in which Yossarian wanders the streets of Rome and takes in the devastation and suffering of war.
The characters of Catch-22 visit dozens of other places around the Mediterranean in the course of the story, including Smyrna, Corsica, Parma, Salerno, Marrakech, Malta, Santa Ana, Cairo, Sicily, Istanbul, Mt. Etna, Mt. Vesuvius, Palermo, Catania, Oran, Beirut, Bengasi, Sardinia, Barcelona, Leghorn (Livorno), Marseilles, Spezia, Majorca, Elba, and Lansing, Michigan.
Many cities or nations are quick stopovers for Milo Minderbender’s capitalist wheeling and dealing. He mentions the price of Polish sausage in Cracow, and flights come to him with goods from Liberia, Ascension Island, Karachi, Madagascar, Reims, Grenoble, Berlin, Vienna, Hungary, Ankara, and Alexandria.
Bombing targets in Italy where Yossarian and his buddies fly missions and experience various mishaps include Ferrara, Bologna, Arezzo in Italy, and Avignon in France.
The homes or places of birth for characters in Catch-22 run from Staten Island and Naples to Enid, Oklahoma and Kenosaha, Wisconsin.
Doc Daneeka constantly fears being reassigned to the Solomon Islands campaign in the Pacific theater. Nately’s wealthy family has houses in Philadelphia, New York, Maine, Palm Beach, Southampton, London, Deauville, Paris, and the south of France.
All of these are no more than passing references, however, and most of them are described in the Bookmarks.